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A Particle Theory of Inheritance by Gabrielle Langley

—for my father, the physicist

A stranger died in my childhood home

before we lived there. We knew this

because a long fluid shadow, a human-shaped stain

marked the wooden floor where he fell.

Our father never spoke of the dead man.

But he told other stories, and whenever he spoke

secret stars would fly from his mouth.

A ruby on Jupiter. Diamonds on Neptune.

Neutrinos. Nebulae. Gluons and galaxies.

We would never learn the dead man’s name,

but astronomy and physics taught us

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity:

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity

which told us the dead man’s mass

was able to bend space. And with E = mc2

we could be pretty sure, he became the waves.

Children learn to read and cipher in rooms

like this, learn to crisscross the silvered lines

of comets and ghosts, learn how the dust

from exploded stars can be used for polishing.

Old houses are always haunted behind the shiplap.

Our ancestors sing in the quarter-sawn oak.

The particles of our dead dance, always in circles.

They dance through the straight edges of sanded wood.

These are the floors we walk, the bare walls of a house

papered over with poems. The boundaries

are not boundaries. Indelible marks

wherever we fall, we are also the stars, rising.


Gabrielle Langley has won the Lorene Pouncey Award, Houston Poetry Fest's Jury Prize, and the Vivian Nellis Memorial Prize. Her first book of poetry, Azaleas on Fire, was published in 2019. With work appearing in a variety of literary journals, and three Pushcart prize nominations, Ms. Langley was also a spearhead and co-editor for the anthology Red Sky: Poetry on the global epidemic of violence against women (Sable Books, 2016). Additional information about this poet can be found here.

Author's note

"A Particle Theory of Inheritance" was written as a tribute to my father on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. The poem features two of his favorite equations. It is also set in the old house where we lived, a house which (for various reasons) my brother and I became convinced was haunted. So, at the same time we were learning science, we were also becoming obsessed with the idea of ghosts and ghost stories. What our father kept from us for many years was that a former inhabitant of the house had died mysteriously in my brother's room. Consequently, I am intrigued by the forces which lead children to develop their own mythologies, stories which may, or may not, dovetail with reality. After all, through the laws of physics, it is entirely possible that we remain connected, forever influencing each other, even after death.